Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

At this year's Canadian Screen Awards, actor and actress categories are unified to simply honour 'best performers.' There will be eight nominees (instead of five each) to compensate for having fewer categories.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The Canadian Screen Awards have moved to gender-neutral acting categories this year. When the nominees were announced Feb. 22, there were no best actors or best actresses, just best performers. Some may feel this decision is wokeness run amok. I say it’s time. If you’re wondering why, let me take you back a year.

Last spring, Sort Of, CBC Gem’s Peabody Award-winning comedy about a non-binary Pakistani-Canadian nanny navigating their betweenness in work, family and relationships, clinched 13 nominations at the 10th annual Canadian Screen Awards – more than any other TV series or movie.

But it could easily have gotten 14. Even 15.

The show’s co-creator, co-writer, executive producer and star Bilal Baig, who like their character is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, quietly chose not to have their trailblazing performance submitted in either of the available acting categories – best lead actor in a comedy series or best lead actress in a comedy series. That’s quite a sacrifice for a young performer in an industry that, despite a reputation for being culturally liberal, doesn’t always welcome changemakers. Amanda Cordner, who plays Baig’s non-conforming best friend, also bowed out.

In an e-mail to Now magazine about Sort Of’s absence from the acting categories, executive producer Jennifer Kawaja said it was important their team “push for inclusivity not just in the shows we create but how they are represented in the world through marketing, press and awards.” She added that after engaging with the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television (the body behind the awards), they were “hopeful that there will be a change to the binary division of performance categories in the coming years.”

That change came quickly.

This year, actor and actress categories are unified to simply honour “best performers.” There will be eight nominees (instead of five each) to compensate for having fewer categories.

The Screen Awards aren’t alone in moving to gender-neutral acting categories. The Gotham Awards, Film Independent Spirit Awards, British Independent Film Awards and Les prix Gémeaux (the Screen Awards’ French-language counterpart) have recently made the switch, along with several film festivals, including Toronto and Berlin. The MTV Movie & TV Awards have been doing it since 2017, and the Television Critics Association removed gender from acting categories way back in 1997.

Still, the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television is making this move ahead of the biggest players in the awards-show industry, including the Academy Awards, Emmys and Golden Globes.

It’s the right choice.

The inability of awards shows to make space for all performers is neither a theoretical issue nor an attempt at political correctness. Baig is far from the only example.

In recent years, non-binary actors such as Asia Kate Dillon (Billions), Carl Clemons-Hopkins (Hacks), Emma Corrin (The Crown) and Emma D’Arcy (House of the Dragon) have either won or been nominated for major acting awards while being forced to squeeze into categories that didn’t quite fit.

The truth is that traditional male/female divisions in acting categories have always been somewhat arbitrary. There are no gender divisions for director, writer or cinematographer. Baig won two of Sort Of’s three Screen Awards last year in non-gendered categories – one as a producer for best comedy series, the other for best writing.

So why shouldn’t Viola Davis compete with Leonardo DiCaprio, or Paul Sun-Hyung Lee with Catherine O’Hara?

There is one valid reason. There have never been as many meaty roles for female performers as for males, and female performers (never mind the long-ignored existence of gender non-conforming thespians) would have been at a huge disadvantage in the past.

Look at that non-gendered directing category. It wasn’t until 2010 that Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) became the first woman to win best director at the Academy Awards – 81 years after the show’s inception. And it was 19 years before Micheline Lanctôt (Sonatine) broke the gender barrier in this country, winning best director at the 1985 Genie Awards (now the Canadian Screen Awards).

This entrenched sexism is still a major challenge. It’s possible that, in rare instances, all eight performers nominated in a new acting category will be cisgender men.

So while there has been much progress toward diversity, the industry must also rise to the challenge and create more award-worthy roles for women and non-binary performers.

Visibility matters. If you can’t enter, you’re never going to win and, love them or hate them, awards come with huge publicity and marketing value. If we want to celebrate all of our stories, we need to create opportunities for people of all gender expressions to compete for major awards.

Mathieu Chantelois is the executive vice-president of marketing & public affairs at the Canada Media Fund, the country’s largest funder of Canadian content across all audiovisual platforms. He’s also a proud gay dad.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles